Israel's Navy Beat the Odds

By Rear Admimral Ze’ev Almog, Israeli Navy (Retired)

The well-prepared Israeli Navy incorporated its new missile boats and capitalized on the extensive operational experience gained by its naval commando units in the War of Attrition (1970). 1

Israel's naval superiority rested in its combat determination, tactics, and electronic warfare countermeasures developed by the Israeli Navy and the Israeli defense industry prior to the war. Israeli boats managed to evade all of the Soviet-made Styx missiles (52 in the Mediterranean and 8 in the Red Sea) launched against them by the Egyptians and Syrians. 2 Because of exacting preparations and accumulated experience, the Israeli Navy succeeded in hitting and sinking a great number of enemy vessels, while at the same time avoiding missiles launched against it. The Navy enjoyed air cover (which was not provided in antiaircraft missile-saturated areas). On the other hand, no use was made of helicopters in naval combat itself. (The Israeli Navy acquired its first helicopter only in November 1984.)

Despite having fewer combat vessels, older technologies, inferior weapon systems, and constant exposure to enemy attack from close range, the Israeli Navy achieved similar results in the northern region of the Red Sea, from Hurgada to Port Suez and Eilat.

On the tactical level, the Egyptian Navy attempted to concentrate operations in support of its armies. This applies especially to the southern part of Sinai and in the vicinity of the Gulf of Suez.

The Syrians refrained from moving their naval forces outside their territorial waters because of intensive attacks from Israeli missile boats on naval targets in the Syrian operative zone and on land-based targets in Syria.

On the northern flank of the Egyptian front, the Egyptians attempted one attack from the Mediterranean against Israeli positions on the northern coast of Sinai. Israeli missile boats and aircraft repulsed this attack, which ended with the sinking of an Egyptian Osa-type missile boat and the capture of part of her crew. This was the only case during this war in which an aircraft sank an enemy naval target.

On its southern flank—the Red Sea—the Egyptian Army planned to seize the southern part of Sinai, down to Sharm-el-Sheikh, with the support of the Egyptian Navy. Israeli naval activity was instrumental in disrupting this operation and causing it to fail.

The war on the southern flank began with a massive Egyptian airborne and seaborne offensive of bombs, missiles, and naval commandos on Sharm-el-Sheikh. Simultaneously, 1,200 Egyptian commandos landed by helicopter on the Sinai beaches along the Gulf of Suez to establish a beachhead. The Egyptian Third Field Army was supposed to arrive from the Suez Canal region and proceed southward to occupy the rest of the southern Sinai. The Israeli Air Force reacted immediately and shot down seven MiG aircraft and eight Egyptian helicopters, while holding off the Egyptian commandos. Israeli Navy boats chased away the Egyptian naval commandos from Sharmel-Sheikh.

The effect of this raid on Israeli naval and ground forces was minimal. Parts of the Egyptian attack from the sea missed targets, and other parts were repulsed. The Egyptian Air Force damaged some ground installations, such as an air defense battery, communications, and antiair radar facilities, but no damage was caused to any Israeli aircraft or seagoing vessels. The Israeli Navy headquarters in Sharm-el-Sheikh continued to launch offensive operations against Egyptian forces in the Gulf of Suez and its vicinity, undisturbed.

The Israeli naval forces in the Red Sea initiated a series of continuous attacks. Small patrol craft (Dabuf type, basically intended for defensive patrol duties), frogmen, and even landing craft that had been outfitted during the war with mortars, attacked Egyptian naval units within and without the Egyptian naval bases in the Gulf of Suez and in the port of Hurgada, which controls the approaches to the Gulf from the south.

Recurrent Egyptian attempts during the war to attack Sharm-el-Sheikh and Israeli targets along the coast of the Gulf of Suez, whether by missile boats, torpedo/rocket boats, or by naval commando units, failed to cause any real damage.

The Israeli Navy's combat initiatives, combined with the support of ground and air forces, gave Israel full control over the Gulf of Suez and led eventually to the following far-reaching results:

  • Dozens of Egyptian-mobilized fishing boats loaded with troops, ammunition, and supplies, ready to invade the Israeli side of the Gulf of Suez and support the helicopter-borne beachhead, were either destroyed or confined to their anchorages.
  • Commando troops of the Egyptian beachhead were either killed or captured. This force, landed by helicopter along the Sinai shores, was cut off from its support bases in the Egyptian anchorages of the Gulf of Suez and in mainland Egypt.
  • Israel's control of the Gulf of Suez made possible the continued deployment of a surface-to-air missile battery close to the Israeli Ras-Sudr naval base, near the southern end of the Suez Canal. This maneuver deprived the Egyptian Third Field Army of air support and prevented it from moving southward to occupy the southern Sinai.
  • The Israeli Navy assisted in tightening the blockade around the besieged Egyptian Third Field Army from the southern flank. This flank bordered on the northern part of the Gulf of Suez, completing the encirclement.
  • On the last day of the war, Israel accepted the surrender of the naval base in the occupied Port of Adabia, as well as the neighboring ports of Ataka and Port Ibrahim. The Israeli Navy had to use its landing craft to evacuate approximately 1,500 prisoners of war. Also captured were two Soviet-made K-123 torpedo boats and two Bertram light patrol boats. Another De Castro patrol boat was sunk.
  • Throughout the war, the oil facilities of Abu-Rudeiz and Ras-Sudr remained in Israeli hands, intact and functional.
  • Three consecutive Israeli naval commando raids into the Port of Hurgada destroyed, without casualties, two of the four Egyptian Komar missile boats deployed in the Red Sea. In these raids, a jetty also was destroyed inside the harbor. These attacks forced the Egyptians to remove their remaining boats from this port, which served as a well-defended strategic outpost. As a result, the Israeli Navy strengthened its control of the entrance to the Gulf of Suez, enjoying complete freedom of navigation. Consequently, these repeated raids on the Port of Hurgada also contributed to securing the continued flow of oil from the Suez wells to Israel.
  • Israel strengthened its hold on Sharm-el-Sheikh. This posed a real strategic threat to the security of Egypt, as its location provided a convenient launching point for invading mainland Egypt. This also gave Israel control over the "choke point" on navigation into the Gulf of Suez and the Canal, giving it the capability of effectively cutting off one of Egypt's most important lifelines.

On the operational level, the Arab navies tried to secure the operational zones of their naval bases and to prevent enemy penetration and activity in these zones. Nearly all naval engagements took place in the operational zones of the massively defended Egyptian and Syrian naval bases, close to their coastal defense lines and not in the open sea.

In the Mediterranean, frogmen penetrated Port Said, a major Egyptian port. In the Gulf of Suez, patrol boats penetrated two Egyptian anchorages and entered the main harbor of Adabia. In the northern part of the Red Sea, naval commandos penetrated the major harbor of Hurgada three times. In each of these five bases of the Egyptian Navy, within its own "operational zones," it suffered substantial losses and damages.

From the Mediterranean, Israel attacked six various positions behind the Egyptian front by shelling and launching one missile from missile boats. Israel also attacked four positions on the Syrian coast from the sea. In the Gulf of Suez, the main coastal road and telephone line were mined and destroyed by the naval commandos. In Mersa T'lemet, the Egyptian anchorage, surrounded by an army compound, suffered a mortar shelling from Israeli landing craft.

As a result of these offensive operations, losses and damage were inflicted within the operational zones of the Arab naval bases, as follows:

  • In the Mediterranean, Israel destroyed nine Egyptian vessels: five missile boats, one torpedo boat, one landing craft, and two armed fishing boats; also destroyed were seven Syrian vessels: five missile boats, one torpedo boat, and one minesweeper.
  • In the Red Sea, Egypt lost 23 vessels: 2 missile boats, 2 De Castro patrol boats, one Bertram light patrol boat, 14 armed fishing boats, 2 large and 12 small. In addition, 2 torpedo boats and 2 light patrol boats were captured in the Port of Adabia.

During the war, 35 Egyptian and Syrian military vessels were destroyed, and four were captured. This excludes damage to facilities and other boats as a result of Israeli firing from close range, near and in the harbors. Harbor and coastal facilities, fuel stores, and bridges also were damaged heavily by shelling from the sea.

All operations ended with three Israeli casualties: two frogmen, part of a team that penetrated Port Said and hit three naval targets, and one crewman killed in a face-to-face battle on board a "Dabur"-type patrol boat inside Mersa T'lemet, in the Gulf of Suez.

On the strategic level, the Arab navies could have gained a meaningful achievement by denying Israeli maritime and oil transportation to and from Israeli ports. This is particularly true regarding the Egyptian Navy, which enjoyed a major geographic advantage. Egypt also had the advantage of owning submarines and destroyers capable of long-range navigation and long-term loitering. But, in fact, this potential was never realized.

Because of the substantial damage inflicted to the Syrian and Egyptian navies, Israel achieved complete freedom of movement within the first two days of the war. Israeli vessels moved undisturbed throughout the Mediterranean, including remote areas far beyond the combat range of the Israeli Air Force.

The best evidence of this navigational freedom lies in the number of ships, both Israeli and foreign, that used the ports of Haifa and Ashdod. From the outbreak of the war on 6 October until it ended on 24 October, approximately 200 ships entered and departed Israeli ports, many carrying military equipment.

When the war broke out, the Israeli Navy had only five small patrol boats and six old landing craft in the entire Red Sea theater. But Israel gradually reinforced the area with land transports and five additional patrol boats. Israeli naval commando units arrived in the Red Sea arena only on the fourth night of the war. Seeing that Israel had not deployed missile boats, minesweepers, nor antisubmarine ships to the area, the Egyptian Navy imposed a sea blockade in the Red Sea and mined the entrance to the Gulf of Suez at the Strait of Jubal. In spite of Egypt's obvious geographic and quantitative advantages in this theater, it achieved its strategic objectives only to a limited extent.

Israel maintained freedom of action and navigation in the northern part of the Red Sea area, and the flow of oil into Israel continued. An alternative route, by way of the Strait of Milan, was prepared as a contingency long before the war began and was used as an alternative route to the Strait of Jubal situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez. The Strait of Milan, near the shoreline of the southwest Sinai Peninsula, remained continuously under Israeli control. As a result, Israel had free access and mobility between the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez.

An empty tanker, holed by a mine and sunk two days after the end of the war while heading to the Gulf of Suez through the Strait of Jubal, was an isolated case. Another small tanker, lightly damaged at the beginning of the war, was repaired and continued to carry oil from Suez, through the Strait of Milan.

The Egyptians caused no other significant damage to any Israeli vessel or installation in this arena. Ironically, the Egyptians cut off their own flow of oil with mines they had laid in the Gulf of Suez (a Greek tanker serving Egypt was damaged by an Egyptian mine). The day the war broke out, three tankers on their way to Israel—two in the Red Sea and one in the Gulf of Suez—managed to evade the blockade. Three torpedoes launched from a submarine toward one of these tankers missed its target, and all reached their destination fully loaded.

The Egyptian Navy may claim to having scored a strategic achievement through its unchallenged sea blockade in the Red Sea. But this kind of constraint was to be expected, and the alternatives to using the Bab-el-Mandab to Eilat route were taken into account in all preparations for war. Israel prepared various options in response to the need of maintaining navigation lines. One of these was the use of Saar IV-class missile boats, an option not implemented in the Red Sea, as these boats were still in the Mediterranean. Another option was ascertaining an alternative route through the-Mediterranean for the import of oil. Consequently, the supply of oil to Israel was not at all impaired.

The encirclement of the Egyptian Third Field Army, in which the Israeli Navy took an active part, served as a bargaining chip in postwar negotiations, including lifting the Egyptian maritime blockade in the Red Sea.

The Syrians, on the other hand, attained no strategic achievements, as they were forcibly confined to their territorial waters.

Israeli perspectives on the 1973 naval war find much support in a book written by none other than the former Egyptian Minister of War, General Muhamed Fawzi. Chapter 10 in his book, entitled Staying Afloat, harshly criticizes the Egyptian Navy's performance in the 1973 War. General Fawzi specifically emphasizes that "a small and resourceful" Israeli Navy confined the Egyptian Navy to its bases, and agrees that the Egyptian Navy suffered heavy losses.

Belligerence has since turned to peace with Egypt, thus making it possible for both peoples to become good neighbors. Negotiations with Syria should, it is hoped, lead to the same goal. Let us also hope that we and future generations will use the waters and beaches of the Mediterranean and Red seas for enjoyment and recreation only. In the words of the late President Anwar Sadat, "Let there be no more war."

1 The naval commando operations in the War of Attrition—which ended some three years before the Yom Kippur War—contributed to the General Staffs recognition of the operational capabilities of the navy and its willingness to assign operational tasks to it.

2 The Egyptian claim, to justify their failure, that the Styx missiles were obsolete, has nothing to do with the results. The Styx missiles in the service of the Arab navies had two-and-a-half times the range of the Israeli Gabriel missile, and a three times heavier warhead: its accuracy may be judged by the fact that on 13 May 1970, only three years before the Yom Kippur War, a Styx missile launched from an Egyptian vessel offshore Port Said, hit and sank an unarmed fishing boat (the Orith), only 14 meters long.

Rear Admiral Almog is the former Israeli Chief of Naval Operations.

 

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